The Holy Brotherhood

Nobody who’s anybody walks in LA.

The Missing Persons song got it right: nobody walks in LA.

It’s time to renew my visa, which means a flight to Los Angeles to render myself to the French consulate tomorrow morning (you are assigned to one consulate or another depending on where in the US you live–mine is in Los Angeles), which means that I spent three hours this afternoon photocopying every @#$% document that the application requires, arranging them all in my little French plastic sleeve in the exact order in which they appear on the instructions page on the consulate web site, imploring the poor lady at FedEx to take my mug shot in such a way that I might appear adorable, or at least not hideous; and walking.  Possibly the Missing Persons lyrics should have been “nobody who’s anybody walks in LA,” ’cause I wasn’t actually the only one. There was the enormously, enormously, enormously obese white woman wearing a halter top and a muumuu, sitting in front of a house that must have cost several million dollars (I shit you not), with all of her belongings in three very chaotic-looking shopping carts, singing softly to herself.  The black lady of my age or so sitting at an empty table in Starbucks, staring at nothing, her lips silently moving as her legs twitch like… well, I suck at analogies, but the poor lady’s legs twitched non-stop.  The oddly-well-groomed-despite-wearing-shorts-and-sneakers-with-tube-socks white guy of my age or so pacing the sidewalk with a blank canvas under his arm, becoming increasingly agitated as he stops by my table again and again to ask if it’s not the case that the car parked in front of the cookie shop is there illegally.  The thin black woman of my age or so (what the fuck is going on with the people my age in LA??) sitting on a bench, waving her hands and having an animated conversation with someone visible only to herself; on her lap is a checklist on which is written חֶבְרָה קַדִישָא, which is Aramaic for “The Holy Brotherhood,” which is the term for a Jewish volunteer burial society.  (Just don’t fucking ask why I can read Aramaic well enough to catch things written on random strangers’ checklists, OK?)

The streets of Paris are full of beggars (see this post for information on why that’s the case, and why it has been the case for centuries).  What the streets of Paris are not full of, though, is vulnerable psychotic people.  Why?  In the United States, we have no national health care system.  In France, there is a national health care system.  Want to know which other first-world countries don’t have national health care systems?  None.  And what are the Republicans hot to do?  Get rid of the closest to national health care that we’ve ever been able to get.  Vote in 2018…

The folks at the consulate were super-nice, and I’m happily re-established in Paris–legal until the end of April, yay!

English notes

I shit you not: I’m not kidding you; I’m telling you the truth.

Mystery solved: the Paris edition

Filled-in windows next to the gate of the Cordeliers campus of the École de médecine, Paris. Picture source: me.

Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the moon is the best writing that I know of on the experience of being an American ex-pat in Paris.  He maintains that the only really important difference between Paris and New York is the latitude: Paris is, in fact, so far to the north that in the wintertime, days are super-short here.  For me, it’s the one and only problem with this place—the winter darkness is crushing, a weight that I often think I can feel physically. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 05.17.57
Google’s autocompletes when I looked for the origin of Paris’s nickname, “The City of Light.” Note: Paris is NOT dirty.

In this city often called the City of Light, light actually is often an issue.  If you live on one of the lower floors of the typical 7-story Hausmannian apartment buildings that make up about 60% of Paris, the sunlight only actually shines into your home for a short time every day, even in the summer—in the winter, it’s a sort of perpetual gloom, even if you have big windows, just because of the height of the surrounding buildings.   Your windows are everything here, as far as I’m concerned.

Bricked-up windows, someplace or other in Paris. Picture source: me.

Consequently, it’s always been a surprise to me to see things like you see in the photo to the left.  You’ll notice that a number of the windows have been bricked up.  In a city where sunlight is at a premium, why the hell would you do that?

A wonderful tour guide told me the answer: once upon a time, buildings were taxed by the number of windows.  Brick up your windows, and you paid less in taxes.  At the time, Parisians mostly rented their apartments (today it’s common to own your apartment), and from the landlord’s perspective, it made sense—if you didn’t think that you could make up the tax difference by charging more rent, you might as well brick up your windows, pay less taxes, and your renters be damned.

Bricked-up windows overlooking a little café on the rue des Écoles. I accidentally learned the word “braguette” here when I walked inside to pay–with mine open. Picture source.

Interesting, but I was never able to find any documentation of the old tax rule that the tour guide had told me about, and I don’t typically write about things on this blog if I can’t find a source to cite.  Fast-forward a few months, though, and I find myself reading Victor Hugo’s Les misérables.  I was expecting a nasty cop trying to throw a guy in prison for stealing two loaves of bread; instead I’ve read  chapters and chapters about a really nice priest.  Is this book ever going to go anywhere?  I have no clue.  But, then I came across this.  Remember: as I said, the priest is really nice.  At one point, he gives this sermon:

« Mes très chers frères, mes bons amis, il y a en France treize cent vingt mille maisons de paysans qui n’ont que trois ouvertures, dix-huit cent dix-sept mille qui ont deux ouvertures, la porte et une fenêtre, et enfin trois cent quarante mille cabanes qui n’ont qu’une ouverture, la porte. Et cela, à cause d’une chose qu’on appellee l’impôt des portes et fenêtres. Mettez-moi de pauvres familles, des vieilles femmes, des petits enfants, dans ces logis-là, et voyez les fièvres et les maladies ! Hélas ! Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend. Je n’accuse pas la loi, mais je bénis Dieu. Dans l’Isère, dans le Var, dans les deux Alpes, les hautes et les basses, les paysans n’ont pas même de brouettes, ils transportent les engrais à dos d’hommes ; ils n’ont pas de chandelles, et ils brûlent des bâtons résineux et des bouts de corde trempés dans la poix résine. C’est comme cela dans tout le pays haut du Dauphiné. Ils font le pain pour six mois, ils le font cuire avec de la bouse de vache séchée. L’hiver, ils cassent ce pain à coups de hache et ils le font tremper dans l’eau vingt-quatre heures pour pouvoir le manger. — Mes frères, ayez pitié ! voyez comme on souffre autour de vous. »  — Victor Hugo, Les misérables


Hugo, a champion of the poor, had it right: search for impôt des portes et fenêtres and you’ll find the Wikipedia page on the subject.  Turns out the tax was first instituted during the Revolution of 1789, but it comes from an older Roman tax scheme called the ostiarium.  In effect until 1926, the original goal was to have a progressive tax, i.e. one that falls proportionally more heavily on richer people.  As it turned out, it had a bad effect on the renters.  From Wikipedia:

Cet impôt fut accusé de pousser à la construction de logements insalubres, avec de très petites ouvertures, donc sombres et mal aérés, et il conduisit à la condamnation de nombreuses ouvertures, ainsi qu’à la destruction, par les propriétaires eux-mêmes, des meneaux qui partageaient certaines fenêtres en quatre, ce qui augmentait substantiellement l’impôt.  Wikipedia

Sombres et mal aérés–exactly as Hugo described them.

On the plus side, the lack of any prolonged sunshine on my windows means that my apartment never gets very hot in the summertime.  When the days get short, I pull a light box out from under my little water heater (which turns out to be related to another Parisian mystery, but more on that another time), and half an hour a day in front of that makes the crushing winter darkness feel less…crushing.  Spring will be here before we know it.

French notes

Dieu donne l’air aux hommes, la loi le leur vend.  “God gives men the air, the law sells it to them.”  What interests me about this is the double pronominal objects: le leur vend, “sells it to them.”  I have a terrible time with that kind of double-pronominal construction, and as it turns out, a lot of French people do, too–ask someone how to say I give myself to you and you give yourself to me, and I’ll bet that they have to think about it for a minute.  The most common answers that I get are along the lines of Je me donne à toi and Tu te donnes à moi, where the indirect object pronoun (in this case, the person to whom something is being given) is not placed in front of the verb, but rather after it, in a prepositional phrase–contrast those with le leur donne, where both of the pronouns are pre-verbal (before the verb).  Native speakers, got any help for us anglophones here?

The basic principle of shopping in a market

Expecting everyone in the file d’attente behind me to be groaning at my idiocy in not being prepared to pay, I dug out my wallet and started digging through it frantically.  “Relax, it’s Sunday,” said the nice lady behind the counter. 

The basic principle of shopping in a marché (market) is this: look for the longest line, and get in that one.  If there are lots of little old ladies in it: all the better.

So, it’s my turn at the chosen fromagier’s kiosk, and madame is weighing my little Vacherin.  Because there are tons of people in line behind me, I’ve got my money right there in my hand, waiting to pay as soon as I have the goods in hand.  Seulement voilà (the thing is), when the fromagière tells me the price, it turns out to be twice what I thought I remembered from last year.  Expecting everyone in the file d’attente behind me to be groaning at my idiocy in not being prepared to pay, I dug out my wallet and started digging through it frantically.  Relax, it’s Sunday, said the nice lady behind the counter.  (If it’s in italics, in happened in French.  But, this gentleman in line behind me, this lady–I don’t want to inconvenience them.  

Oh, no–madame is right, it’s Sunday.  No one is in a hurry, said the gentleman.  He smiled.  The lady behind him smiled.  The fromagière smiled.  even smiled.  I got my Vacherin, said au revoir to everyone, and walked away.  Have a good Sunday, said the fromagière.

Explain to me again why you think that French people are rude??

The reason that I hadn’t boughten a Vacherin for a year: it’s a winter cheese.  (Boughten discussed in the English notes below.) Yes, cheeses have seasons, and this one shows up around the time that the days start to get depressingly short and you wonder whether or not you can find last year’s gloves.  According to my copy of Marie-Anne Cantin’s Guide de l’amateur de fromagesIl est de nos jours un des rare fromages saisonniers.  (The kid at the fromagerie that I usually go to–it’s about a 20-second walk from where the firing squads used to do their thing up against the wall of the Fermiers généraux, as recently as 1871–told me one day about some of the tricks that are now used to get sheep to produce milk outside of the lambing season.  It’s not cruel, but not exactly appetizing, either.)

Picture source:

Also known as Mont d’or, I think it’s hyper-bon, and apparently a lot of other people do, too, because at this time of year, it’s stocked more heavily than anything else.  As you can see in the photo (taken on my kitchen table), it comes in a box (and it must come in a box), and the box is made of épicéa (spruce) (and it must be made of épicéa).  Cantin says that it’s from the spruce that the unusual taste of a Vacherin comes.

As you can see from the picture, a good Mont d’or has undulations on the surface–des vagues (waves), Cantin calls them.  It’s a very soft cheese, to the point that if you a buy a larger one, it typically comes with a wooden spoon–indeed, you can just scoop it out, and it spreads easier than butter.  (One of my friends insists that the only way to eat a Mont d’or is to pour some white wine on top, put it in the oven for a bit, and then pour the melted cheese over boiled potatoes.  Cantin sees it my way, though, and what my friend doesn’t know, won’t hurt her.)

In the time that it’s taken me to write this post, I’ve eaten approximately 25% of my Vacherin, and you know what?  I don’t care.  The other day I calculated how many more weekends I have to live: 680.  Probably sounds morbid, but it inspired me to work not more than, say, 30 minutes all of this weekend, which happens, like, never–did you calculate how many weekends you have left yesterday, and if not, what did you do this weekend?  Carpe diem, baby!

French notes

l’épicéa (n.m.) : spruce.

le vacher : cowherd.  Le vacherin était autrefois le fromage des vachers.  As Cantin explains this: back in the days, comte was made in the mountains while the cows did their summer grazing.  In the winter, the cows would be back in the stables, and the milk quantity and quality decreased.  Additionally, the roads could impassable.  So, rather than taking the milk to a cheese-maker, the farmers made their own cheese out of it–hence Vacherin being a vacher’s cheese.

English notes

boughten: yes, boughten is English.  More commonly, it’s bought, but you will run into the boughten form in some dialects–the Midwest and the Northeast, mostly, I think, although I couldn’t swear to that.

Picture source:
Picture source:


A day in the life of a puppy

There was a leaf and I sniffed it and there was kibble and I peed and I took a nap and there was a bird and I barked at it and we played King of the Hill and I peed and I took a nap and…

J’ai bien reçu cet SMS du chiot d’un pote aujourd’hui :

yavê une feui é jl’é reniiiphlé é yavê dé krokè é sétè miam miam et pui jé fê pipi é popo et pui jmesui fê un peti som et pui jé fê pipi et pui yavê un ouoyzo et jé hurlé trê férossmen et ysanètalé et pui on a jwé roy de la montanie et pui jé fê un peti som et pui jé fê pipi é pui ma seur m’a bouskulé et jé di “iapiapiap” é pui on a rennniphlé un ballllon é pui on a jwé loup-garou é pui jé fê pipi é pui jmsui fê un peti som et pui jé fê pipi

Nul en ponctuation mais il se débrouille pour bien exprimer ce qui lui passe quand même, hein ?

French notes: You’ll find the names of some dog breeds below.  (I have no idea how one pronounces chow-chow in French.)  One of the delightful aspects of regulation in France: you can call your purebred dog  (le chien de race) anything you want, but its registry name has to start with the official letter of that year.  2017 is N, so look for lots of registry names like Ninou, Nanette, or Nadine until fin décembre, and then lots of puppies named things like Olivier, Odette, or Ourson beginning January 1st…  One of the delightful aspects of the language itself is the occasional presence of names for males and females of a given breed, but the only one that I know off the top of my head is levrette–no limite remarks necessary on that one, but I’d love to hear about others in the Comments section…

Picture source:
Picture source:

Some things are just WRONG: How to set your y-axis range, and why

I recognize the difficulty of defining things like good and evil.  I recognize the hazards of binarity: a lot of things in life just aren’t simple enough to talk about in terms of yes/no, up/down, right/left.  Nonetheless: some things are just WRONG.

Source: me.

Case in point: labelling your y-axis in graphs.  The y-axis of a graph is the vertical part.  It typically indicates a quantity of something.  Most quantities in life have some natural range of values.  For example:

  • Percentages can’t go lower than zero, or higher than 100.  That’s just part of the definition of “percent.”
  • Accuracy can’t go lower than zero, or higher than 1.  That’s just part of the definition of “accuracy.”  (Yes, accuracy does have a definition.)
  • Minutes in an hour can’t go lower than zero, or higher than 60.

Not everything has a fixed range, right?  For example: temperature has a minimum (the point at which all molecular movement ceases), but (as far as I know), it doesn’t have a maximum.  Age can’t be a negative number, but if there’s an upper limit on how old something can be, I don’t know what it is.  (Obviously, there’s a limit on how old can be, and I won’t mind hitting it.)

Now, if you are graphing something that has a fixed range–percentages, you should have a y-axis that corresponds to that range.  You’re graphing the accuracy of your man-eating-rabbit detector?  No accuracy at all (i.e. always being wrong) is an accuracy of zero, and always being right is an accuracy of 1, so your y-axis should go from 0 to 1.  You’re graphing the percentage of recently-fed post-pubescent man-eating rabbits that your man-eating-rabbit-electrocutor successfully electrocutes?  The smallest possible percentage is 0, and the largest possible percentage is 100, so your y-axis should go from 0 to 100.

Why do I say this?  Where the hell do I, an English major and an acknowledged innumerate, get off telling anybody how to draw their graphs?  Who the fuck do I think I am–some Strunk and White of data visualization?  No, not at all.  You use y-axis ranges that reflect the natural range (if there be one) in your data for two reasons.

Reason number 1: Using a natural range helps your reader understand what you’ve found.  The top and bottom of the y-axis are visual landmarks that your user uses to get the instinctive feel that graphics are so good for about the size of whatever effect it is that you’d like to convince them that you found.  (English note: I don’t have a clue about whether your reader is male or female, so in my dialect, you use the “generic plural” them to refer to him/her/it.)  Not using a natural range for your y-axis is failing to help your reader get your point.

Reason number 2: Not using a natural range can be completely misleading.  I’ve never seen anybody use an enormously larger range than they should have.  No: when people don’t use a natural range for the y-axis, they’re using a smaller range than they should have.  What is the effect of using a smaller range than you should?  It makes things look more different from each other.  Why does looking more or less different matter?  Because science is typically about finding the differences between things.  These cancer cells got treated with Drug A and didn’t die, these cancer cells got treated with Drug B and did die–that’s a difference that will save some lives.  What happens when your y-axis doesn’t show the full range of possible values?  It makes it look like there are differences where there really aren’t any differences.  It’s misleading, and if you’re going to claim that you’re doing science, you should avoid misleading people.

Yes: I am ranting.  In fact, this is the kind of thing that I like to rant about when I teach.  (Well, I don’t like to rant about it–it irritates me, and I would prefer that it not exist.  But, rant about it I do.  (See the end of this blog post for an explanation of that weird construction rant about it I do.))  But, somehow, when I’m teaching, I never seem to have an example handy, and I sometimes wonder if my students think that I’m ranting about a phenomenon that doesn’t actually exist.  (I’m pretty sure that they think that when I rant about man-eating rabbits, but I haven’t actually asked.)  So, when I happened to come across a stellar example today, I took a screen shot of it.  I’m not going to tell you what the source was–to protect the guilty.  Check it out.  What do you think the point is of those columns labelled ours?  It’s that their numbers are bigger than the other guys’, and therefore better.  But, are they, really?

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 16.51.25
Graph with a y-axis range from 80 to 88 when it should be 0 to 100.

I think not.  Are their bars higher than the other guys’?  Yep.  But, look at the values on the y-axis–the range is only from 80 to 88.  They’re graphing something called F-measure, which has a range of possible values from 0 to 100.  (Actually, it’s from 0.0 to 1.0, but I’ll let that go for the moment.)  Their crappy y-axis range makes it easy to think that there’s some interesting difference there, but actually, there’s barely any difference at all between their score and the next-best score–that tiny difference means essentially nothing, and is more likely to be statistical “noise” than it is to reflect anything real.  Note that these guys could have made the range be from 80 to 89 just as easily, but making it go from 80 to 88 means that if you don’t look closely, it looks like they have a perfect score–the orange bar goes all the way up to the top of the graph, right?





There is almost nothing that you will say, hear, write, or read today that will not be ambiguous in some way.

Ambiguity exists when something can have more than one interpretation. Ambiguity is completely pervasive in language. There is almost nothing that you will say, hear, write, or read today that will not be ambiguous in some way, but humans are so good at what’s called “resolving” ambiguities that we only rarely notice them. Computers, on the other hand, are not–they have no way of not stumbling on them, and you could think of the entire challenge of people like me whose work involves computers and language as being finding ways to let computers resolve ambiguity.

Ambiguity is often manipulated in humor, and jokes, cartoons, and the like are the best way that I know of to get people to notice it. In that spirit, here’s an example of what’s called ambiguity of anaphoric reference. Anaphora is the phenomenon of something in language having its referent–you could think of that as the thing that gives it its meaning—from something else in language. Consider this cartoon:

Why is it funny? The joke is built on the fact that the word one in which one? gets its meaning from something earlier in the conversation. To a human, it’s obvious that the intended referent is an island in the Galapagos. However, the speaker interprets the referent as being one of his uncles. Why can he do that? Because the one is, in fact, ambiguousthere’s nothing in the linguistic structure of the sentences that indicates one way or the other whether the referent is the uncle, or the island. The humor works by violating our expectations. A computer program, on the other hand, doesn’t have any such expectationsunless we can figure out how to give them to it. Hence my job.

Want to know more about anaphora?  Check out my colleague Ruslan Mitkov‘s excellent book Anaphora resolution.  #cleaningthebasement

I woulda figured something Athabaskan…

Since Bigfoot is mostly sighted in Oregon and Washington and was apparently captured in Alaska…

Pre-contact distribution of the Athabaskan languages. CC BY 2.0,

The Athabaskan languages are a family of languages native to North America.  Currently there are about 53 of them left.  They’re spoken in Alaska and northwestern Canada, in pockets of the coastal areas of Oregon and Washington, and in the south-central United States.  Since Bigfoot is mostly sighted in Oregon and Washington and was apparently captured in Alaska, I woulda figured that he would speak something Athabaskan, but apparently not…

I woulda figured explained in the English notes below. #cleaningthebasement

English notes: Colloquially, one meaning of to figure is to guess or to think.  Some examples: